Let’s play a game. Give yourself a gold star if you’ve ever dropped what you were doing to randomly fly to an exotic, international location. Give yourself another if you can blow obscene amounts of money on designer clothing without batting an eye, or even knowing the price. One more if you drive the nicest car in your private, gated community, or two more if you live on or own a private island. Ten points if you’re on multiple V.I.P. lists for any number of nightclubs here or abroad. Twenty if you spend more than $500 on bottle service in one night. Now let’s count up the figures, shall we? Never mind that I’ve used two different systems of measurement—what the conversion of gold stars to points is you’ll have to ask Michael Scott—but I would wager that the majority of people reading this article have one or less mark in their favor.
Now, let’s play an easier game that I’m sure we can all win. Give yourself some measure of success—star, point, or otherwise—if you have heard musical groups or solo artists bragging about having or doing any of the above things. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we have a winner.
In an overwhelming percentage of music of today and yesterday, popular or otherwise, the recurring subject matter or source of inspiration for many artists has become, to borrow a verse from Good Charlotte, “lifestyles of the rich and the famous.” Artists from across every spectrum of music have dabbled in this subject matter, from modern pop one-hit wonders (“Like a G6” by Far East Movement and “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea) to ’80s fist-pumping classics, like “Money For Nothing” by Dire Straits. The world of rap is practically drowning in references to the finer things in life, spanning T.I.’s promises of purse-buying, Patron on ice, and the dropping of stacks to incredibly decadent speedboat rides (looking at you BIG) and Jay Z’s similar, if more danceable, claims.
All this hypothetical decadence becomes somewhat exhausting when examined this close, but also points to a tendency equal parts disturbing and confusing. That is, the perverse, nonsensical attachment this country has to the idea of a lifestyle nearly none of us lead. Think about it. We rock out to songs which profess the joys of limitless wealth; unconsciously memorize the lyrics to infectious tunes whose videos feature people literally rolling in money, smoking it, making it rain from the balcony of an estate in some secret, rich-people-only city. And yet, we have no real-life experience to connect these images to.
I drive a dented Honda Accord that once belonged to my grandparents. I’m happy if I have more than $5 in my bank account at the end of the month, because by that point I’ve spent money on boba tea and shirts from American Apparel. I have no context in which to appreciate the enormity of the number of flight attendants someone has slept with while flying on a private jet to multiple, insane destinations, because that will never conceivably happen to me. I’m pretty sure the majority of you would agree that for your average person, the scenarios and images presented in these types of songs are outlandish and unreachable. So how can we possibly be so obsessed with songs that advertise a culture we can in no way relate to?
This is exactly the image some artists fight against the tide to debunk. When writing her hit song “Royals,” Lorde claims that she wanted to create something which rejected this endlessly perpetuated obsession with a level of fame and wealth that only a fraction of us can ever hope to attain. It’s an interesting direction, and one that other artists have taken as well. The crossover indie/hip-hop darlings such as Frank Ocean and Manchester Orchestra have also taken this stance in the past, examining the shallow nature of such a lifestyle, yet, somehow, bottle-popping and cash-dropping songs remain king.
So from this, perhaps we can surmise that people succumb to ideas of wealth and notoriety perpetuated in music because they will never experience it. Songs that discuss topics such as heartbreak, loss, poverty, or love, happiness, and family, are territories well-explored by musicians past and present. Instead of latching on to music that merely reflects their own life experience, people may gravitate towards the exotic; towards a culture of spending and partying with no consequences. It is for the very reason that they cannot identify with these songs that people keep listening to them. It is not just the beat or the lyrics that infect you, but the idea that those things are selling you. The idea and the image of a glamorous, perceptually superior lifestyle—a fairytale-world of endless parties, fine dining, and elegant clothing. Instead of living the dream, we settle for listening to it. Because hey, let’s face it, it’s the closest we’re ever going to get.